Ann Sally: Brand-New Orleans

Five months before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and caused the levees in New Orleans to break, Ann Sally released Brand-New Orleans, an album of jazz and blues standards recorded with New Orleans musicians. I briefly thought about holding a New Orleans fund raising drive with that album as a donation prize, kind of like how local public television stations get viewers to buy stuff during donation drives. But I hadn’t yet listened to the album, and I have no connections with a label to facilitate such a drive.

Now that I have listened to the album, I should have held that drive anyway, just to get people to listen to it.

Like Máire Brennan, Sacha Sacket or Hatakeyama Miyuki, Ann has a grocery list/phone book voice — someone who would sound good singing a [grocery list/phone book]. She could have gone for convenience and recorded Brand-New Orleans with Japanese musicians with all the technical skill to pull off jazz and blues. But instead she traveled across the globe, and the effort pays off.

Brand-New Orleans is stunning.

Never mind Ann’s slight accent, which is actually barely noticeable next to UA or Hatakeyama. And never mind the very obvious choice of material: "What a Wonderful World", "Sweet Georgia Brown" (the Harlem Globetrotters theme, if you recognize the tune but not the title), "When You’re Smiling". Above all, never mind the pristine cleanliness of Ann’s voice, which may seem at odds with the grittiness of the blues.

Her delicate voice may sound more like a vessel for folk music — check out her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now" — but she manages to keep up with her band, which in turns pushes her to deliver some of her best performances.

I’ll confess to being way out of my league in terms of reviewing jazz and blues, genres to which I have not yet learned to listen properly. But if a dummy like me can sense a real chemistry between Ann and her band …

All that to say, Brand-New Orleans can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a good show. Ann can really swing on "Sweet Georgia Brown", mitigating any memories of basketball antics for people far too familiar with the aforementioned Globetrotters. She can key into the heartbreak of "Since I Fell for You", and her restraint on "Lazy River" makes for a nice contrast to what could have been an overdone performance.

When the album concludes with "What a Wonderful World", it feels like a fitting end — an iconic song made into her own.

Part of me wonders whether I would have enjoyed this album as much had Ann not traveled to New Orleans, and I suspect I wouldn’t. No offense to Japanese musicians, but they would have played and recorded these songs cleanly. Brand New-Orleans has some rough edges around the expert musicianship of Crescent City locals — pianist Fredrick Sanders, bassist Richard Moten, drummer Gerald French, saxophonist Eric Traub and trumpeter Mark Braud. These guys play fast and loose with a beat, letting Ann’s voice provide the velvet touch.

She even gives the band their own showcase on "Bogalusa Strut", a very gracious move for what’s supposed to be a jazz vocal album.

Brand New-Orleans is an enjoyable album if only for the fact everyone playing on the album sound like they’re having a blast. Ann’s band makes her sound great, and she returns the favor by really getting into the swing.